Early Struggles Inspired Tammy Phillips’ Adult Career

She worked hard and persevered and now helps her students do the same

By Mary Beth Roach

Facing learning disabilities in her younger years, learning from those experiences and realizing the importance of a strong support system are what inspired Tammy Phillips to become a special needs teacher.

“You would see your friends getting things easily. They would pick it up easily. They didn’t have to study as much. I struggled immensely in college. But it made me a hard worker. I persevered,” she said.

Her persistence paid off. She graduated from SUNY Oswego and went to work as a teaching assistant in 1999 at the Jowonio School in Syracuse. At the same time, she earned her master’s degree from Syracuse University in children with disabilities, birth through sixth grade. Her experience at Jowonio, she said, was instrumental in teaching her the need to get to know each and student how to work with them. She started with the Westhill School District in 2006, beginning at its Walberta Road School, and then moving to Cherry Road School, which is grades two through four, about seven years ago. She is now one of three special needs teachers at Cherry Road.

She also credits her parents for the strides she made in school. It made her realize the difference that such support can make.

“I wanted to be one of those teachers that advocate for kids’ needs,” she said.

The teachers need to really learn their students, figure out what their needs are and realize that every one is an individual, she said.

Among her special needs students are several who are on the autism spectrum, and she describes autism as a “development disability that affects information processing.” Those with autism can have a wide variety of difficulties, the most common impacting their social and communication skills. Many, too, she said, have an interest in a specific topic, which they will talk about incessantly, not comprehending the social cues that other people might not be interested.

Special needs students have individual education plans, IEPs, so they’ll meet their milestones and teachers can monitor their progress, she explained.

Special needs teachers align their lessons with what the general education classes are doing. “We stay on topic as their same grade peers, but you might be using different books, different materials,” she explained. This school year, Phillips is teaching three grade levels, so she works with eight different teachers to ensure that she’s coordinated classwork accordingly.

The special needs students come to Phillips and her team for certain portions of the day and remain with their general education classroom, with their same-aged peers for other times, including lunch, social studies, and science, and Phillips has baskets in their rooms with modified work and projects.

Key for Phillips is developing a good rapport with the parents. All of her students’ parents have her cell number.

“You have to build that trusting relationship. I just make sure that every kid feels loved and understood by me. I think that because of that relationship with the child, I just see them excel. They’re hitting milestones that I never would have expected. It’s such an amazing experience to see that happen,” she said.

Following a recent class observation done regularly by the school district, one of the administrators wrote that Phillips was jumping up and down because her student had read three words.

“But that was the most exciting moment because I had waited and waited to hear that (student) say that,” she said. “I started in 1999 and I still get that excited.”

She gets so excited sometimes at a student’s achievements that she’ll call or text the student’s parents during the day to share the good news with them. It helps to build that relationship, so if you have to make that call if their child is having a hard day, they trust you, she pointed out.

“The school-home connection is key for students’ growth” she noted.

Challenges and Rewards

She has found that the challenges of the job can also be the rewards.

There are times when one of her students may be struggling with his or her behavior – whether in her class or another classroom, and she is called in to restore some sense of calm. Despite how she may feel, she cannot let those emotions show. She needs to remain calm because if she gets excited, the situation is only going to worsen, she said. She explained that when situations like these arise, it’s important for the teachers to figure what triggered the incident and what they can do to avoid it happening again.

“In the same breath, it’s one of the joys,” she said. “The student’s in escalation, and they see me, and you can see them start to relax. Even though it’s a hard part of the job, it’s also, I know this child trusts me and knows that I’m here for him or her.”

Another job, she said, is seeing her students reach goals independently, for example, seeing children with communication and socialization difficulties engage with other students on their own or read for the first time.

“I can teach them how to read; I can teach them how to do their math. We try to teach them social skills, to see them do it on their own is huge,” she said.

And when hearing a student who couldn’t read, say a few words for the first time, she explained, “It is the most joyful sound you can hear because you know that that kid as struggled so much.”

Impact of the Pandemic

Coping with the COVID-19 pandemic has been challenging for the students, teachers and parents. Having structure is beneficial to these students and the pandemic has destroyed any type of structure. The Westhill District is using the hybrid model, although some of students with higher needs are attending in-school classes four days a week and doing online work on Wednesdays.

As Phillips explained, online learning has been difficult for some students with significant needs. It’s difficult for them to remain focused and engaged; there are many distractions at home. They often don’t have the technological skills needed to do online learning.  Seeing their teacher through a computer screen can be confusing and students often need direct help when reading and writing that online learning cannot provide. Often, parents are trying to juggle online learning for several children, and many are trying to do their own work from home.

For teachers, she explained further, it’s difficult to give students the support they need.

“It requires a lot of creativity to keep students engaged. I believe that virtual learning has hindered some students from learning social norms – learning classroom expectations, following rules, having interactions with others and developing social skills they require. Some of these things are difficult to learn at home, although parents are doing their very best to give their child everything they need and deserve,” she said.

When she shares her experiences over the years, one can easily see the love she has for her students, celebrating their accomplishments, being a calming influence and continually advocating for them.

“Everybody has their own way to succeed. We, as the adults, have to figure out how to do that for all kids,” she said.